Unmarked graveyards yield forgotten 'treasure'

Monday, December 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

CAPE GIRARDEAU — What looked like a bare tract of land proved to be anything but when Marla Ives tripped.

"I have no center of balance, which is a good thing here," she said after her fall revealed a headstone.

Ives, an employee of the Cape Girardeau County Archive Center, cleared chunks of grass from a marker with the last name "Shults." At Wilson Cemetery, just east of Oak Ridge, there is a cleared section of the graveyard where some headstones have fallen over and are buried under a layer of dirt.

"It's almost like digging up buried treasure," said Drew Blattner, assistant director of the center. "We get so excited when we find one."

Center employees are making their way through the county's more than 200 cemeteries to uncover and document headstones. The project, which started in April, is part of their efforts to update county death records.

Aside from a 10-year period between 1883 and 1893, death certificates date back to 1910 when laws started requiring the records, Blattner said.

"That's an early death certificate to us," he said, pointing to a headstone.

Blattner said the tools are basic. The group uses a soft-bristled brush, a mirror and a small plastic shovel. In warmer weather, water would also be part of their list. Using metal tools or chemicals could damage the headstones, Blattner said.

At Wilson Cemetery, headstones pop up from the brush in some areas. The markers date back to the 1820s and some are worn beyond recognition.

The group started in the back corner of the graveyard and worked its way through meandering rows of headstones and footstones. Ives used a brush to clear off the writing and wrote down the information. Steven Pledger, director of the center, followed behind with a camera to snap photos of each grave.

In the more bare areas of the property, elongated dimples provide clues where headstones no longer exist.

"You can see where the people are buried just by the indentation in the ground," Pledger said.

Many of the county's small, rural cemeteries are abandoned and not maintained. Some headstones have also been vandalized. The goal of the project is to create a record of the graves.

Pledger said the county's oldest cemetery is Lorimier Cemetery, which has headstones dating back to 1816. The second-oldest, Thompson Cemetery near Egypt Mills, includes a Revolutionary War soldier buried in 1818, he said.

According to state law, once a cemetery is abandoned, ownership reverts to a county or municipality. If an abandoned burial ground is surrounded by private land, the public can access it, an action that can be enforced by the Sheriff's Department.

For the past seven months the center has been closing three Saturdays a month to work on the project. The office is open to patrons during the last Saturday of the month.

Blattner said he has a list of people who want to help with their family cemeteries. He said volunteers help the process, especially in cases when there is extensive brush clearing.

Depending on how the project evolves, he said the center will publish the information in books or on DVDs.

The task has also revealed more about the history of the county. Blattner noted information from headstones for Wilson Cemetery's namesake to research the family.

He has also encountered language barriers and cultural information. German headstones, he said, sometimes contain long Bible verses and details about the person.

"Sometimes it will list the village they came from in Germany or Switzerland," Blattner said.

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